Florida Opioid Epidemic Compounded By Lack Of Addiction Specialists

Sep 19, 2016

Buprenorphine implants and injections are used by some addiction specialists to ween patients off opioids or heroin.
Credit BRAEBURN PHARMACEUTICALS

President Barack Obama is proclaiming it’s “Prescription Opioid and Heroin-Epidemic Awareness Week.”

As more people become addicted, he’s also asking Congress to pass $1.1 billion in new treatment funding.

But getting connected to treatment can be as difficult for struggling addicts as deciding to seek help in the first place.

Rural Clay County resident Joan said she’s tried everything to find long term help for her daughter, who’s suffering with heroin and opioid addiction. She doesn't want her last name used because she’s afraid of drug dealers.   

Once, she got so desperate, she petitioned a court to take her daughter into treatment involuntarily.

“I tried going through mental health court, tried doing the Marchman Act, tried that a couple of times and she never could get served. So she was never brought to court because of that,” she said.

At the beginning of this year, lawmakers passed a law streamlining the involuntary commitment process by giving local organizations and law enforcement more discretion in getting people treatment. The law also more closely aligns the Marchman and Baker Acts, which allows for the commitment of substance abusers and those suffering from mental illness respectively, reports the News Service of Florida. But commitments are only temporary, and once a person is released, there isn't enough state money budgeted to help continue treatment. In fact, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Florida is close to last in mental health spending.

So after her daughter’s boyfriend died from an overdose about three years ago, Joan began a quest to find suitable, long-term treatment and quickly realized there aren't many options. She could put her daughter in an inpatient, abstinence-only program or wait weeks for a slot with a psychiatrist, who may or may not be an addiction specialist.

One of the few Northeast Florida doctors certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine to provide medication-assisted addiction treatment is Jacksonville Dr. Amit Vijapura.

“In a rural area it’s very difficult to even have a psychiatric coverage, and addiction is an even smaller coverage compared to the psychiatry,” he said. “Me and other colleagues in the area, it’s about two weeks waiting time for anybody to get in.”

An index created by healthcare consulting group Advocates for Human Potential found Florida has just 20 counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists for every 1000 addicts. That’s the fifth worst ratio in the country.

Vijapura said even if a patient breaks through the access barrier, paying for long-term treatment can be nearly impossible.

And Joan agrees. Her daughter is in rehab now, but insurance won’t pay for continued treatment after that, she said.

There are only 239 board-certified addiction specialists in the Sunshine State.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at rbenk@wjct.org, at (904) 358 6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk